Over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to coherently articulate my thoughts for some writing I want to do about the Kingdom of God and the New Creation at Christ’s consummation. Not being a professional theologian, and knowing what a vast minefield of issues are involved, I’ve approached this topic with considerable caution. (I’ve been told not to worry. Getting your eschatology wrong isn’t the end of the world.)
I recently read Christopher Wright’s The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith. The question” What about the end of the world?” is the theme for the last three chapters of his book. What I found encouraging was that I have come to his conclusions on almost every critical point. That doesn’t make me right, or him right (though he is Wright), but it at least gives me hope that I haven’t wondered of the eschatological reservation. Over the next several days I plan to devote four or five posts to his observations. I’ll say a little about Chapter 9 (Cranks and Controversies) and Chapter 10 (The Great Climax) and then spend more time with Chapter 11 (The New Beginning).
Chapter 9 (Cranks and Controversies) Eschatology addresses the seven last things:
- The intermediate state
- The return of Christ
- The resurrection of the dead
- The day of judgment
Here are some important observations Wright makes:
“The Last Days” – In the New Testament, this phrase refers to the period from Christ’s first coming to his second. As Scot McKnight convincingly points out in A New Vision for Israel: The Teachings of Jesus in National Context, Jesus’ message was more closely tied Second Temple Judaism ideas of a restored and vindicated Israel then we typically perceive. Jesus presented himself as a messiah who would be vindicated within the lifetime of his contemporaries. That vindication came with the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., but the final judgment was not rendered at that time. This doesn’t make Jesus or his followers mistaken. The pattern in the Old Testament was for prophets to be given veiled knowledge of the next big event, not a chronology of God’s future plans. While the continuation of the church after 70 C. E. was unexpected (as was the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ death, Jesus’ bodily resurrection, etc.) it wasn’t contradictory. All that is to say that we’ve been in the last days for 2,000 years.
Millennium – While minimizing the importance of the concept of millennium, which is mentioned only in Revelation 20, Wright says he believes that the millennium is the period between Christ first and second coming (i. e., amillennial). It is the last days. Ditto for me.
Rapture – Sorry. The word isn’t in the Bible. The idea of souls snatched up into heaven out of the body, leaving the sinners behind isn’t there either. It is based on a serious misreading of one passage, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. The image here is of Christ coming from heaven to the clouds above the earth, where the dead, and then the living go up to meet him. The imagery is of a ruler visiting a town where the inhabitants go out to meet him and usher him into the town in glory. The imagery here is the dead and living ushering the ruler into their town on earth and acknowledging him as Lord. Remember that in Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth.
Left Behind – A second passage that feeds into the rapture discussion is Matthew 24:40-41; the “left behind” passage. We want to be among those left behind! The analogy follows Jesus’ mention of Noah’s flood where those who were evil were swept away while the righteous were left behind. So too of the pairs Jesus mentions in this teaching. I’ll also add that I expect that what Jesus was speaking in reference to was the coming calamity of 70 C. E., not some distant event.
Land of Israel – The land of Israel is of no significance in the Christ’s return.
One of the essential New Testament metaphors is that the physical temple is no more and the church is a living temple with each of us as living stones. Israel, as a place, has lost significance. There are no more sacred buildings or sacred lands.
I’m sure I’ve included enough here to provoke some resistance. I think Wright nails it on each of these topics. How about you?
Next, Chapter 10, The Great Climax.